WHEN PARENTS split up, it is not the separation itself but the way it is handled that really matters for any child caught in the middle.
But harmonious co-parenting after separation can be extremely difficult, particularly in the immediate aftermath when emotions are raw and grievances are being counted.
It is vital a couple draw up a parenting plan – ideally before they sit down together to tell the children they are separating – so that they have the answers to questions such as how and when they are going to see both parents, who is going to take them to their sports and what will happen for holidays.
Research shows that the biggest fears children have at the time of a family break-up is that they are going to lose contact with one parent, and the other is, “What is going to happen to me?”
“When parents separate, the principal thing they should be thinking about is not dividing the house and who gets the Waterford Crystal, it should be about the kids,” says Martina Newe, director of Help Me to Parent and a family mediator.
“If parents took note to behave in particular ways and avoid other behaviour, it would really help children through it.”
A parenting plan must focus on the children’s needs. “The less grey areas, the less room there is for conflict,” says Newe, who runs a one-day course on parenting after separation.
“If you have thought about it and agreed it, then you are not going to have conflict about it.”
It is also good for a child to see separated parents working together in his or her best interests.
“I am horrified by some of the stories I hear about people not letting the other half see the child, parental alienation syndrome and where a parent uses a child as a way to punish the other parent – that is so damaging for the child,” says Newe, a separated parent herself.
The course focuses on how best to support children through separation and enable them to lead peaceful lives, enjoying their right to loving relationships with both parents.
One Family, a national organisation for one-parent families, offers a number of services that can help separated people with their parenting.
Although things can be done differently in separate homes, estranged couples need to have a sense of shared values around their children, says Karen Kiernan, director of One Family.
It has introduced a shared parenting course, which is run over six weeks, and also offers one-to-one parent mentoring, during which people can focus on the small issues.
“Unless separation is amicable, they are not really going to want to spend time together,” acknowledges Kiernan. It is best if both people are willing to do some work but they don’t necessarily have to do it with each other.
“It can be difficult if one parent is availing of services and the other parent isn’t engaging – we are looking at ways of getting the other parent involved.”
One Family is developing a new course on co-operative parenting, as part of its work in piloting two child contact centres in Dublin, in conjunction with Barnardos, starting this autumn.
There is usually a high level of conflict among parents who use contact centres, which facilitate a child’s time with the non-resident parent.
The centres will offer family support. “The idea is that [clients] would then be able to move on to normal, external contact without the need for a centre,” says Kiernan. “If they don’t avail of services, it is highly unlikely they will be able to make those changes and move on.”
It has become more the norm in Ireland after separation for both parents to want to remain actively involved with their children.
In the past year there has been an almost 50 per cent increase in child custody applications to the family law court in Dolphin House, Dublin, according to figures published last week by the Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, as well as an increase in court applications referring to children.
All sides, including many in the legal profession, recognise that resorting to court action to thrash out parenting issues is not beneficial for families.
So, apart from a few tailored courses, where else can separating couples go for help?
The Family Support Agency offers a free, family mediation service, which is run in 16 offices around the Republic – as well as a newly-opened pilot project in Dolphin House. There is a waiting list for what is a part-time service and some of the offices are open only two days a week (see fsa.ie).
For separating couples, parenting is usually a big part of what has to be negotiated, along with finances and property, says the service’s eastern area manager, Sheila Healy. People who have difficulty reaching an agreement when circumstances change can also use the service.
“The kind of situation you put in place when children are four or five is not going to be the same when they are 14 or 15,” says Healy. “It is something that needs to be brought for review, or that they can be flexible on between themselves.”
In recent times, mediation staff have dealt with cases where one partner, usually the male, has had to go to the UK, the US or even Australia for a job and the separated couple have to agree on a new way of parenting.
There are also private mediation services and the best place to find a mediator is on the website of the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (themii.ie), which is the only accrediting body for what is a non-regulated service.
“We bring the voice of the child into the room as a mediator,” says Claire Kearney, who represents the family sector on the MII council. “A separating couple may think that they are thinking about their children when in fact they may not be.”
Mediators, she says, ask the difficult questions – ones the couple may be afraid to ask each other.
The Marriage and Relationships Counselling Service (MRCS) is seeing more people looking for help with parenting after separation. This is often many months after the break-up, when things are not working out, says counselling services manager Yvonne Jacobson.
In some US states, counselling on future parenting is mandatory for separating couples who go to court to settle their differences and she would like to see a similar measure here.
“Kids have a tough time. I think the State should be ensuring that the best is done for children,” she says.
As well as counselling services, the MRCS also has a support group for separated persons, which meets monthly in the presence of a counsellor and where parenting issues frequently come up. (For more information, see mcrs.ie or tel: 1890-380380.)
In the recession it is harder for couples to separate physically when alternative accommodation is financially out of the question.
This is more of a reason to get the parenting right after a relationship breaks down, she adds, because the close proximity means there is more likely to be tension and conflict.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable when parents split up and MCRS runs a specialised service, Teen Between, for them (teenbetween.ie).
One Family’s parent mentoring service with trained professionals is “hugely popular”, according to director Karen Kiernan (see onefamily.ie or tel: 1890-662212).
Mentors take a very practical approach and can help parents understand what is happening with their children and look at ways of managing that behaviour.
“That’s really about the parent changing and then helping the child change,” she explains.
Parentsplace.ie, set up by parent mentor Paula McKenzie, has a list of independent, trained mentors in various parts of the country, under “referrals”.
‘I WAS TRYING TO DO THIS [COURSE] FOR MY KIDS, BUT IT PROBABLY ENDED UP DOING MORE FOR ME’
When Louise heard about a new one-day course on parenting after separation, she was keen to go along to find out if she was taking the right approach to issues concerning her three-year-old daughter.
She told her former husband about it and they attended together, as is encouraged by the organisers, Help Me To Parent, although parents go independently too.
“I needed to know if I was on the right track,” says Louise. “I wanted him to go because I felt if he heard it from somebody else, he might believe it more and understand that I am just doing what’s best for our daughter.”
They split up two years ago and when she brought him to court over maintenance, they got a court order for access as well.
Under the order he has their daughter from 4.30pm until 7pm one evening a week and then has her for 24 hours every weekend – although Louise has varied that so they can take turns to have a full weekend with her.
Overall, their parenting goes reasonably smoothly, she says. Things they do disagree about include the handling of their daughter when she starts displaying anxiety about going with her father. Louise does not want to force her to go when she is hysterical but he thinks she should.
“The times she does not want to go would be if maybe she is not feeling well and wants to stay with her mammy,” Louise explains, because generally she likes going with him.
By attending the course together, Louise hoped they would be “on the same page” and would be able to move forward with the advice they received. “I am not telling him what to do, he is not telling me what to do – it is coming from somewhere else.”
She was surprised to see that the majority of the 10 people on the course that particular day were men. “At least they were able to tell my ex-husband about the positions they were in. It made me look good!”
One of Louise’s issues with her ex was his dropping their daughter back up to an hour late, without making contact. So she was glad he was there to hear Martina Newe, who presents the course, comment on how worrying and disrespectful that scenario is to the other parent. Advice on how to answer children’s questions was also helpful, as their daughter is just beginning to ask about things.
Louise explains that mammy and daddy are better off living apart but that they are friends. “As long as she can love both of us the same and can have the best of both worlds, I think we will be doing okay.”
The best thing was that she and her former husband did the course together, Louise adds. They could chat about it afterwards and apply what they had heard to their own situation.
Also on the course that day was Brian, who has been separated for 10 years and has a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son.
“I was having difficulties with my ex over a lot of issues, over behaviour – what they should do, what they shouldn’t do. There were completely different sets of rules in each house.”
What he learnt from the course was “you just have to go with that, it is part of being separated”, he says and that children adapt.
“They seem to cope with it better than me. I was trying to do this [course] for my kids but it probably ended up doing more for me.”
The children stay with him three weekends a month, which is about all he can manage, he says, with his work commitments away from home. His relationship with their mother has been up and down since they separated, cordial at times, but he reckons he has not spoken to her for a year.
Now his children both have mobile phones, he can ring them when he is picking them up. “When they are smaller, you have to talk about everything.”
He was in a new relationship for six years with a woman who also had a child, but he found it was a life of constant compromises – a “tug of war” over what was best to do for the children.
“I didn’t put myself and her first, I always put my kids first.” As a result, he has decided it would be better to stay on his own until his children have reached college age.
Did attending this course change the way he parents? “I have all the ideas and you try to put them into practice.” He thinks it might have been a good idea to write down all the main points and stick them on the door to the kitchen, “lest you might forget . . .”
Things have changed anyway over the past year for him, “mainly because of my lack of contact with my ex and the fact that I am not in a relationship at the moment. I have nothing to annoy me; I am a lot more laid back. I can talk to the kids better.”
Looking back, he believes he and his ex would have benefited from mediation for sorting out parenting issues after their break-up, rather than going in and out of court.
“Ninety per cent of the time we were in court for stupid, simple things that could have been solved if we had a mutual friend, which we didn’t. It was a complete waste of her time, my time and our solicitors’.”
He saw how the solicitors could come to an agreement over something in five minutes – “‘You want this, we want this, we’ll go half on it’ . . . Something we could have done ourselves so simply.”
Article By: Sheila Wayman
PARENTING: Parenting courses are more popular than ever as parents learn the tried and tested ways to do the most important job of their lives
BEING BRITISH prime minister was only the second most important job in his life, acknowledged Gordon Brown as he departed No 10 Downing Street. He looked forward to spending more time on the most important one – being father to two little boys.
It was an unexpected, high-profile endorsement of parental priorities. But while parenting may be a job that ranks above all others in terms of its influence and prevalence, it is not one for which people are trained. Most parents just get on with it, for better or for worse.
Certainly, it used to be considered an admission of failure if somebody went on a parenting course. Not any more. There have never been more courses available and providers are reporting an upsurge of interest.
On the positive side, this suggests a growing realisation that there is a need to learn more about the most important job we will ever do. On the negative side, it may also be a symptom of how isolated and unsure of themselves many parents feel, living away from extended family in a fragmented society.
If “follow your intuition” is one of the soundest pieces of parenting advice, it is questionable how much can be taught. But parenting courses empower parents by allowing them to share their concerns and to explore tried and tested ways to do what they think best.
“The vast majority of things about parenting we all know,” says the manager of Parentline, Rita O’Reilly. The value of a parenting course “is reinforcing and reminding and reassuring you that other people have the same problems”.
As a confidential listening service, Parentline was receiving so many queries about parenting courses that, instead of referring callers elsewhere, it decided earlier this year to start running them at its centre in Carmichael House, near Smithfield in Dublin.
“We hear what parents are saying,” says O’Reilly. “We know what the issues are and feel we can respond. When they are finished the course, but then have another question, we are there on the line all the time.”
We all bring into our parenting the way we were parented, says Sue Jameson of Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust. “Sometimes the only way you can step back and take a look at that is by joining a group and listening to other people’s experiences.”
Cuidiú, which is more associated with breastfeeding support and ante-natal classes, began organising parenting courses in response to demand from local branches. These are aimed at helping people enjoy the different stages of their children’s lives and “finding fulfilment in what can be a very arduous and thankless task”.
It is an “act of maturity” to attend a number of parenting courses during children’s lives, according to clinical psychologist Dr Tony Humphreys. His parenting programme, which is taught by various people around the country, operates on the premise that “all parenting begins with the parent”.
Sheila O’Malley, who trained with Humphreys and uses his material for evening courses and one-day sessions in south Dublin, says its focus on the parent makes it different from other parenting courses. It can be applied to children of all ages and, indeed, to all relationships. By people looking at themselves and how they interact with others, “it effects real change rather than temporary change”.
O’Malley reports that couples who come on courses together all say that is the best way to do it. “It is probably the only time in your lives that you have an opportunity to come together on your parenting and have a chance to chat it through,” she comments.
The children’s charity, Barnardos, has seen a steady increase in people seeking parenting courses over the last couple of years. While the ones it runs in its own centres are for the parents of children it works with, it also provides courses for any group in the community, be they a school parents’ association, a circle of friends or employees in a workplace. This is something other providers will do too, so, if there is no suitable course nearby, it is worth considering getting a group together and bringing in a trainer.
The website, barnardos.ie, has a very helpful database of parenting courses which can be searched by county. (Your local HSE office should also have information on courses.) For those who have neither the time nor the money to do a course but would like some advice, the Barnardos “Parenting Positively” booklets can be downloaded for free, or ordered for just the cost of post and packing.
When Maeve Carroll, a mother of a three-year-old girl and 19-month-old boy in Knocklyon, Dublin, went looking for a parenting course last autumn, she signed up with one run by Help Me To Parent. At the time she was losing patience with her children, particularly her daughter who was very jealous of the baby and inclined to hit him.
“I wanted to calm down the situation,” she explains. She found the one-day course for parents of children aged one to six “extremely helpful and I came away equipped with a bit of ammunition to face them”. She was also reassured that her daughter’s hostile reaction to her baby brother was completely normal and would stop.
“When it is your first, you haven’t a clue!” she says, adding that she will definitely go for another course as the children get older.
Not surprisingly, the biggest demand is for courses on parenting teenagers – often triggered by some crisis. Frequently, when parents find how helpful the process is, their one regret is that they did not do a parenting course years ago.
It is one thing “training” the parents of teenagers but what about the teenagers themselves? Some parents who attended one-day courses run by Help Me To Parent suggested it might be a good idea if their offspring could also have the chance to look at issues.
A new self-esteem workshop for the 13-18 age group, starting this Saturday (May 29th), is the result. There is evidence that young people are looking for courses in self-esteem and dealing with issues such as exam stress, says psychologist Niamh Hannan, who has designed and is facilitating the course. The idea is to boost their sense of self; to help them to accept themselves and be happy in themselves.
She will focus on understanding your mind. “A lot of people feel the victim of their own thoughts or their own feelings – particularly during the teenage years, because they are also victims of hormones,” she says. “I will be teaching the teenagers how their mind works and how to take control and manage their own thoughts and feelings.”
Teenagers, she agrees, need to want to do the workshop, as it would not be much fun working with ones who were dragged there by parents.
“They don’t have to talk about things they don’t want to talk about,” she stresses. “It is not therapy.” And Hannan will not be reporting back to parents, so the teenagers can be assured of confidentiality.
Suddenly, all those lip-pursing, hip-swaggering, groupie-loving years may be coming back to haunt you. Sure, you may be fabulously rich and famous, but turns out you’ve got exactly the same headache as z-list dads planetwide — a tearaway teen daughter.
Fusing your ex Jerry Hall’s gorgeous genes with your rebellious streak was bound to end in tears. After all, Papa was a Rolling Stone — and now your 18-year-old daughter Georgia seems hellbent on repeating your party animal past. When the media got a sniff of pictures that appeared to show your little angel doing some sniffing of her own at her 18th birthday bash in January, you came down hard — grounding student Georgia in the run up to her A-level exams this summer.
Forking out almost €12,000 a year for her fancy Surrey school, the least you can expect is for her to knuckle down for the finals — right? At first, laying down the law appeared to work.
Why, just last month, socialite Georgia made you proud by cancelling a planned appearance at a party in Chelsea to stay at home studying. But while she may have appeared on the cover of Vogue and fronted campaigns for Rimmel and Versace, Georgia sure ain’t a model student.
Last week, the rule-breaking brat once again defied you by sneaking off to St Tropez to model barely-there outfits for Chanel. But you’re not alone, Mick. Right about now, thousands of your fans throughout Ireland are tearing their hair out trying to get their own troublesome teens to hit the books for the Leaving Certificate exams next month.
Being a parent in the public eye, your challenges are bigger. Every misstep you’ve taken has been documented by the press.
But don’t think that your wild child history gives you any less authority when it comes to parenting. Just because you went off the rails in your heyday, doesn’t mean that you should tolerate Georgia doing the same.
So remember who’s the Daddy, although Georgia may accuse you of being a hypocrite so you might have to be a bit sneaky.
Try saying: ‘I wish I had been as mature as you are and realised I was doing the wrong thing’. Let her know you have the confidence in her to make the right choice — that way, she’ll know you’re not just nagging.
Children of celebrities may be harder to control because of the level of luxury at their fingertips. Ordinarily, pocket money is a very powerful tool in disciplining teenagers (incidentally, those less well-heeled than yourself can try deducting a set amount from their child’s pocket money every time they flout a house rule).
Having earned around €700,000 from a megabucks deal with jeans manufacturer Hudson though, self-sufficient Georgia isn’t relying on her minted old man for pocket money. And with a lucrative career already, she’s probably not too bothered about acing her A-levels.
But all’s not lost, Daddy Cool. There’s still a way to motivate even the most independent teenager to study. Sit down with your daughter and talk about how she sees her future panning out.
The stick approach clearly hasn’t worked with Georgia, so try using the carrot instead. Give her some incentive to study — agree that for every point she gains in her exams she gets a reward, such as a designer handbag.
On a more affordable level, the same advice goes to regular parents whose teens aren’t inclined to study. Consider what they’re likely to achieve and what you can afford, then agree to give them a set amount for every point they get.
As a single dad, Mick, it’s also important to sing from the same hymn sheet as your ex when it comes to discipline. It’s important for separated parents to jointly agree on the parameters for the child and stick to them.
Now you may not want to hear this, Mick, but it’s no good instilling all these lessons into an 18-year-old. Children need to be taught from an early age that you expect respect from them.
Think of it like this, Mick: parenting is like piloting an airplane. In the beginning, your child is in the passenger seat and as they get older they begin to co-pilot with you. Your aim is to get them to a stage where they have enough skill to fly the plane themselves.
The teenage years can be very difficult as your child tries to navigate their way from childhood to adulthood. Throw in hormones and physical changes and it can be an explosive time.
There’s no point in going in with a nuclear weapon and screaming ‘You’re grounded for a year!’ — both you and they know it won’t happen. If you’re unsure what to do, Mick, my advice is to press ‘pause’ until you calm down.
At 18, Georgia is an adult. But as her dad, the good news is that it’s never too late to put your foot down. It doesn’t matter whether they’re 18 or 80, you’re still their parent. Disrespect is not acceptable at any time.
Signed Martina Newe